As any journal editor or creative writing teacher will tell you, there are certain short story themes that have become so popular with writers that the sheer number of them makes it difficult for any particular submission to stand out. In the year-plus that I’ve served as fiction editor at TLR, I’ve noticed certain of these trends in our submission queue, and I thought I’d provide some advice on how to get those stories with common themes past the slush pile.
It’s natural for writers, especially those beginning their careers in fiction, to tap their personal lives for story ideas. But for an editor, seeing those ideas on a regular basis—sometimes several times a day in fact—tends to mute his potential excitement. It’s not that the stories themselves are bad, it’s just that they rarely offer much that’s new on the topics they address. Keep in mind that an editor’s job largely entails finding new and creative fiction, something that hasn’t been said before, or hasn’t been said in a unique way.
Take, for example, stories about dying relatives. This is a staple of fiction. It dwells on themes of loss and appreciation—often too late—of the persons afflicted. In the 1990s many such stories dealt with death from cancer. The 21st century version of this story often has an older parent or grandparent suffering from Alzheimer’s. Some of them deal with the issues involved with caring for the relative; others start just after the funeral. Each typically includes the protagonist’s reassessment of his/her life in light of what has changed.
Another theme I see frequently is that of a couple coming to terms with a failing relationship. This in itself is not a story fail, as there’s no end to the options available on this topic—they are as varied as the number of characters involved. The issue, however, is the setting. So often the stories begin with a couple in a car on a long drive, which gives them an opportunity for their differences to fester. Imagine an editor reading a dozen stories in a morning and finding that three of them begin with a couple in a car agonizing over their relationship. (It’s not as unusual as it sounds.) Chances are he won’t read too far before rejecting them, based solely on their lack of originality.
Other popular themes these days include stories about elementary school teachers having trouble in class, and children dealing with a parent’s new lover or spouse. One particularly surprising theme I’ve noticed gaining in popularity is “I ran over a deer (or other animal) and have decided to nurse it back to health.” The idea here (and it’s not a bad one) is to create a metaphor for the protagonist’s desire to rescue his/her life by rescuing another’s. Unfortunately the premise of the story is common enough that an editor may turn it down just on that basis.
So how to avoid having your story rejected because the idea or the setting is too common? Here’s a few tips (and forgive me if you’ve heard these before):
- Read, read, read. Check out a variety of literary journals to see what’s popular and what’s overdone. Knowing what’s been written on your theme may help you to come up with a new angle, something the editor hasn’t seen yet. This doesn’t have to drain your finances. Many journals (like TLR!) post some or all of their content online, so it’s free to read. Your local library or bookstore may offer a variety of journals for perusal or sale, so you don’t have to take a subscription (although every writer should support their favorite journals by taking subscriptions). Learn the tropes and learn to avoid them.
- Your story may mean a lot to you, but think about how it appears to the editor. Is it a new perspective, or is it so close to something that’s already been published the difference hardly matters? If it’s an experience from your personal life, try, as much as possible, to remove your personal bias and think in terms of your readers, your audience, who may have heard this before.
- Looking for new ideas? Read newspapers and magazines, especially those that cover cultural and scientific trends and debates. The real world offers a wealth of issues and incidents outside our personal lives that can serve as fuel for fiction, by connecting your characters’ lives to larger issues. Expand your interests and you’ll supercharge your stories, and make the editor’s job of rejecting and accepting that much more difficult, which honestly, is what he wants.
- Don’t know enough about other places, peoples, or times to write about them? Do the research. Learn to use the internet to its fullest potential. Learn which sources can be trusted and which can’t. Use your local library and work with the librarians to find what you need. In my personal experience, for many of my best stories I spent as much time researching as I did writing and revising. The writer’s mantra should not be “write what you know,” but “know what you write.”